"Education is the business
of youth work. Enabling and supporting young
people, at a critical moment in their lives, to learn and develop the
capacities to reflect, reason and to act as social beings in a social
Education is, undoubtedly, an essential component in the
practice of youth work. It is firmly recognised by policy that youth work is an
educational profession, and the 1990 statement of purpose confirms that youth
work offers opportunities that are:
"Educative – enabling young people to gain the
skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to identify, advocate and pursue their
rights and responsibilities as individuals
and as members of groups and societies." (NYA 1998:3)
The United Kingdom Youth Work Alliance updated that statement
in 1996, stating that youth work "offers a wide range of informal education
activities in the community" in pursuit of providing opportunities for
young people to enhance their personal and social development. (UK
Youth Work Alliance 1996:3)
So who has informed our educational work? What are the
differences that set youth work from, say, schooling?
I take this opportunity to look at the work of the late Paulo
Friere, who was a Brazilian adult educator. Freire’s educational work was
essentially focused on giving a sense of power to people who experienced poverty
Through his engagement with the poor, he taught the importance of involvement in
political processes through the use of the knowledge of literacy and reading.
During the time that the Military overthrew the prevailing regime in Brazil,
progressive movements were clamped down on and Friere was jailed and eventually
exiled. In the late 1960s, his work in the USA brought him into contact with the
racial unrest that riddled America. He discovered that the oppressed here were
also excluded from political, social and economic opportunities. It is during
this time that he wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed in which he stated that
"Education is to be the path to permanent liberation". He presented
two stages of this – becoming aware (conscientized) of the oppression and
through "praxis" taking action to change (Collins
1999). Friere placed a strong emphasis on the
importance of dialogue in the learning process. He provided the idea of banking
as a method of education. Put simply, this is where educators make deposits to
the learner. He encouraged the dialogue to be a two-way process of learning (Smith,
If I relate Freire’s ideas to my own practice – I can
begin to make some very clear connections. Through praxis, Freire had a desire
to use dialogue as a means to foster informed action – with a goal of changing
the world (Smith 1999).
As a youth worker, this is an important theory when working with all young
people, and especially those from oppressed groups. Through my own dialogue with
young people, I seek to inform young people and enter a two way learning
process. Part of my role as an educator is to present young people with
information that supports their rights, redressing inequalities in relation to
race, gender, sexuality or class. A specific example I will draw on took place
at a rural youth centre where I worked. Workers and I felt that young people
were making comments of a homophobic nature during a particularly busy night.
The next session I attended, I had prepared a planned "tool" of
conversation about sexuality. The young people who I had built a strong
relationship with over the two years I had worked with them, began to approach
me and ask about the issue, responding to a flip-chart I had put up. From this
stemmed a series of debates and questions surrounding the issue of sexuality.
Even if people still retained their standpoints, I believe that contribution was
a valid one – as questions were raised and a process of learning took place.
Through this method of education, I am defying the norm that sexuality and the
politics of it are "better left without discussion" resulting in
ignoring the social constructions of sexuality (Kent-Baguley
In our work as informal educators, and in pursuit of
anti-oppressive practice, conversation is an important function. It is clear
that we are out to provide learning opportunities, but it is also important that
I note that we are there to learn also. In challenging people, we are looking
for ill-informed assumptions and must stay open to legitimate points of view
from people (Jeffs & Smith 1999).
In my mind, this is about remembering that our values, personal beliefs and
ideologies can show in our approaches with young people.
I would like to draw upon another educational philosophy that
I believe has informed the importance of education and my own practice. Carl
Rogers was concerned with the development of counselling and client-centred
therapy in his work. Drawing from his work and an approach that he called non-directive
therapy, he extended his views to education. He promoted the idea that he
was a "facilitator to engagement" (Smith
1999). Informal Educators are able to relate to
this theory as it steps away from the idea of formal teaching and more in
line with the idea of creating learning opportunities. Indeed, Carl Rogers’
philosophy is summarised in this quotation:
"I want to talk about
learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile and quickly
forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of poor helpless individual
tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about
LEARNING...the insatiable curiosity that drives..."
(Rogers 1983 cited in Smith 1999)
Rogers has been criticised for this in some respects as in
some ways it dismisses the importance of formal education, or teachers (Smith
1999). Whilst being critical of aspects in formal
education, I remain convinced that each practice compliments each other.
Having looked at the philosophies that I believe underpin
informal education, I would now like to explore the idea of informal
education further by examining its process. Formal education is much concerned
with set outcomes. In schools, a national curriculum is instigated by the
government and implemented by teachers. Informal education is different in its
delivery. Much of what we do as educators is locally determined or even based on
an individual with conversation as a major factor of determining our
"curriculum". Our roles differ, as do situations, throughout our
practice, but the process can be illustrated in this way (Jeffs
& Smith 1999:65 Fig 5.3):
1) We make an assessment of what may be going on and our role
2) We engage in conversation
3) This raises questions
4) We consider these in relation to what we discern makes for
5) This enables us to develop a response...
This process of conversation shows a responsive style of
education where our curriculum is determined by the direction that young people
wish to take.
An element of informal education is that it happens in a
variety of places and is essentially of a voluntary nature. With this in mind,
the process described above is important to our planning. Using the above
process, we are able to take the challenge of educating on a mountain top if
needs be! Another positive aspect of this process is the pursuit of working with
oppressed groups. I am able to determine, with young people, the nature of the
educational activity through this model. A set curriculum within a formal
educational setting may benefit a white, middle class male – but how does this
type of teaching fare for a black young woman? A practical example I would like
to draw on is the use of cultural awareness in debates. Often in my groupwork
sessions with young people, I have tried to present different perspectives on
the issue that we have come together to discuss. This could be interpreted as a
way to avoid "devaluing" black people and challenging the stereotypes
formed by white members that black people are inferior (Thompson
Having explored the philosophies and practice of informal
education within youth work, I would like to discuss the historical context of
education in the development of youth work.
According to history, youth work has always had an
educational focus. Indeed, the first "work with young people" movement
that I find documented is the establishment of Sunday Schools by Robert Raikes
in the late eighteen century (Nightshift
The development of the youth work movement, and education as
its component, has historically been subject to the "knee jerks" of
society and policy makers’ perceptions of issues surrounding young people. In
simple terms, this means that often the service, and youth work in general, has
responded to the needs around it almost as a shock response! Robert Raikes set
up the Sunday School in Gloucester after he witnessed young men (who had worked
the other six days of the week) hanging around the streets and "getting
into trouble". It was his belief that the inadequacies of the jail system
could be challenged, by prevention (i.e. – working with the boys) than cure (Canton
Baptist Temple 1999).
The voluntary nature of youth work has been consistent from
history, preceding any statutory provision. Indeed, it was not until 1918 that
Local Authorities were obliged to give any financial aid (Nightshift
The educational role in youth work first appeared to gain
some importance in 1939, when the government issued a Board of Education
Circular stating that youth services should have:
"An equal status with other educational services
conducted by the local authority."
Further influence towards our current practice can be found
in Circular 1516 by the Board of Education in 1940. This stated that the aim of
the Local Education Authorities was concerned with the development of
individuals so that they can take their place as "full members" of
communities (Nicholls 1997).
With subsequent youth work encompassing the community picture, we can see how
this could relate to current practice.
In 1951, the educational role was questioned and the services
were subjected to financial cuts, but at the same time the profession gained
conditions of service for the first time. It was not until 1960 that new
recommendations for provision were made in the historical findings of The
Albemarle Report. The committee’s findings suggested more funding for the
youth service, new buildings and training for youth workers. During the 1960s,
the profession of youth work was given much attention as a result of the
Albemarle Report. The JNC was formed to negotiate the salaries, conditions of
service and qualifications with respect to youth workers but more significantly
– the first National College for the Training of Youth Leaders was opened (see
Nightshift 1996 and Nicholls 1997).
Throughout the development of youth work, history shows that
there was an amazing lack of awareness towards the class divisions that existed
in society from the 1960s onwards. This was due to a state dominant assumption
that greater wealth and more equality of opportunity was resulting in a
"classless" society (Davies
1999). In the 1980s, work with oppressed groups
finally came to some fruition. This was, in part, due to the pressure of workers
with a concern, but probably more so to another "knee jerk" set of
events. By comparing a few historical notes, I can see some visible responses by
the government to issues of race. Work with black young people began to take
place during this decade. At this period of time, there was an uprising of black
young people in parts of England as a result of racist police action. An account
of a young black man working in Birmingham during the 1980s gives a disturbing
picture of unemployment, racism in the justice system and discord among the
black communities (Dennis 1988).
One reflective opinion states that in London, police used their "position
to practice their racial bias" (D’Aguiar
2000). The government responded to the
"riots" by applying inner-city funding, and the youth service was
challenged to work with black young people because of the "perceived threat
of Black and Asian young men on the inner-city streets" (Davies 1999). A
threat? Surely this is the most disturbing knee-jerk that we have seen to date.
The most recent knee-jerk was of the late 1990s. The
government’s Social Exclusion Unit produced a report entitled Bridging the
Gap providing details of young people who had been excluded from or were
refusing school. It produced some alarming concerns about health, education and
training/employment outcomes for young people who were aware from formal
education (SEU 1999).
The response by the government is to develop a brand new "Youth Support
Service" that aims to increase participation in schooling. With the youth
service being a open-door to all service, the target-market is now set to be
narrowed to those "at risk" of disaffection which may result in a
shift from an educational focus towards an advice one (Smith,
In this essay I have discussed the
importance of education in the development of youth work.
I have discussed the educational philosophies of two people
who I feel are personally relevant to my practice - Carl Rogers and Paulo Freire.
With Freire’s work, I was able to make direct links to anti-oppressive
practice, and youth work in general. I used sexuality as a practical example of
how the characteristics of informal education can be applied, drawing on Jeffs
and Smith’s work.
I then explored the historical development of youth work,
looking at the important milestones for the youth service in terms of
educational responsibility. I discussed the idea of knee-jerk events effecting
the type of service, with particular reference to race.
In conclusion, it is clear that the youth service has a
strong educational role. The importance of education is clear concentrating on
young people’s development, both personally and socially.
My examination of the historical context has indeed
reaffirmed the educational importance of my work. We can see from the 1980
"riots" that people who did not, consistently, have a chance to speak
had to resort to aggression and violence to achieve speech. As an observation of
my own practice, this is a lesson for the development of both understanding and
informed action. Informal education, although at risk of being seconded to
advice, needs to be consistent in youth work delivery, so that young
people regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, religion and class are given
opportunities to explore themselves, their communities and their rights.
How different do you think the 1980s would have been had
there been an equal and fair opportunity to "speak out" for all?
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